We seldom have opportunity to get the inside-scoop on a journal from those who work so hard to make it possible. We caught up with Ernest Suarez, president of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), the society who publishes Literary Imagination. Find out more about the background and scope of the journal, as well as how Ernest views the past, present, and future of the fields of literature and creative writing.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the ALSCW and Literary Imagination?
The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers was founded in 1994 by what an article in the New York Times called a “Who’s Who of literary critics.” We still have a very rich membership, one that consists of critics, poets, playwrights, novelists, translators, musicians, secondary school teachers, literary agents, and even a few scientists—including two NASA astronauts. Our members have received MacArthur Fellowships, Grammy Awards, Carnegie Fellowships, and more. We’re all about literature and the arts–and about providing opportunities for people from many backgrounds to interact. Mentorship is a strong part of our ethos. The ALSCW grew out of the conviction that literary study had become so overly politicized that people were losing sight of why literature, literary study, the arts, and humanities are valuable. Literature and the arts often contain a political dimension, of course, and that’s an important part of the picture, but it’s not the entire picture. We read writers from Homer to Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson to Derek Walcott to Toni Morrison to Philip Levine because their work helps us think about what it means to be human. That’s a large and complex matter. Great literature has been written by people from diverse backgrounds who approach what it means to be human in a variety of ways. That dynamic is what makes literary study rich and textured.
Literary Imagination started in 1999 as a journal that reflects the ALSCW’s values. The journal stresses the synergy between literary history and aesthetics, and focuses on literature from different periods and in different languages. Artists seldom experiment with aesthetic forms just for the sake of it. As perceptions of the world change, greats artist create new techniques in order to engage new ways of conceiving reality. As time progresses and new works of art are created, the significance of previous works shift. For instance, if it were not for Morrison, Charles Johnson, and other writers’ use of slave narratives in their fiction, slave narratives would be considered important historical documents but they wouldn’t have the same literary resonance. If Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman would not have had a wide influence on subsequent writers, they would be viewed as talented anomalies rather than as influential innovators.
LI publishes essays that explore the significance of literary works throughout the ages, as well as original poetry and fiction by writers ranging from Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners to folks whose careers are just getting underway. The journal’s editor—Archie Burnett—is a world renowned scholar who has edited the verse of Milton, Housman, Larkin, and others. Rosanna Warren and I recently became associate editors. Rosanna is one of our finest living poets and a wonderful scholar.
2. How has the field changed since the founding of the journal in 1999?
I think there’s been a slow and steady shift, especially among younger scholars, back towards studying literature-as-literature and towards an emphasis on the relationship between literature and the other arts, and away from seeing literature primarily as a sociological phenomenon. The ALSCW and Literary Imagination have played a powerful role in this transformation. This doesn’t mean ignoring literature’s political and cultural dimensions. It means engaging those things more fully and accurately. One of our members, Robert Levine, who teaches at the University of Maryland and is the General Editor of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, recently wrote a superb book on Fredrick Douglass. In it he strives to examine Douglass’s autobiographies “as Douglass regarded them,” and stresses that “recovering Douglass as best we can in his own time helps us construct a more vital Douglass for our own—a figure, in other words, that is more than simply a figment of our collective cultural imaginations.” Marjorie Perloff, a former Vice President of the ALSCW, has a marvelous new book, The Edge of Irony, on modernist novelists, poets, and playwrights from Austria. She uses biography and cultural history to situate the artists during a volatile time, and provides nuanced close readings of works that center on their artistic merit and cultural resonance. Marjorie also has a terrific article on T.S. Eliot in the new issue of Literary Imagination. This type of scholarship advances our understanding of literature, literary history, culture, and most importantly, what it means to be human and live in the world. It’s the kind of writing that’s published in Literary Imagination.
3. What do you hope to see in the coming years from both the field and the journal?
The type of writing I described in answering the question above, as well as fine poetry, fiction, and other forms of literature. Personally, I like criticism with a narrative emphasis, scholarship that carefully situates writers and works within their historical moment and that offers close readings of works within those contexts—and I appreciate criticism that goes on to explicitly and implicitly assess how particular writers have impacted subsequent writers and the implications for our thinking today. I would like to see more criticism by practicing artists; it tends to help remind us that literature and art are created by human beings, and contain all the ironies and paradoxes associated with diverse people at different times and in different places. I think there’s excellent work being done by narrative theorists who understand the nuances of literary form and its relationship to human expression. I also think there’s terrific work to be done on “poetic song verse,” forms of song that use voice, instrumentation, and arrangement to foreground richly texture lyrics. We see it as a subgenre of song that’s also a form of literature.
4. Tell us about your work as the President of the ALSCW.
It’s an honor and a pleasure to be involved with the ALSCW. I chaired an English department for seventeen years, and along with my colleagues, put together a program that stressed literary history and aesthetics. The ALSCW has a similar emphasis, but on a much larger scale. I’m most passionate about literature and teaching literature. Two years ago our national headquarters moved from Boston University to Catholic University, where I teach. The University has been very supportive. My current Dean, Aaron Dominguez, is a world class physicist who memorizes Derek Walcott’s verse. Our DC location is a big asset because it helps put us into direct contact with decision makers. There’s also a concentration of colleges and universities in the area. One of the ALSCW’s priorities is to enhance the ways literature is taught on the high school, undergraduate, and graduate levels. Our headquarters also helps with fundraising, and helps organize the annual national conference and local conferences. I think our troubled nation and world are in desperate need of what literature and the humanities offer. My work with the ALSCW involves making sure that literature and literary study enriches the lives of as many people as possible. We give out the Meringoff prizes in poetry, fiction, and the essay, and a high school prize for literary criticism. We give out an annual fellowship to a poet or translator through the Vermont Studio Center and another annual fellowship to a person writing his or her dissertation. The opportunity to help with Literary Imagination is something I relish.
Featured image credit: Books by StockSnap, Public Domain via Pixabay.